The so-called IT talent crisis - lessons and critique

Jon Reed Profile picture for user jreed July 7, 2016
I almost blew a fuse over the title of a new report on the so-called "talent crisis." But as I dug deeper, I found quite a bit to recommend, including specifics on how companies are recruiting from diverse talent pools.

I used to blow a gasket every time headlines blazed with "IT talent crisis." Now I mostly yawn. I've been studying the IT talent crisis since the mid-90s. Still waiting for the shocking fallout. Yeah, we've had slowed/failed projects, and some bidding wars. But western civilization lurches marches on somehow, eh?

Yeah, I'm irritated. We've known for decades the roots causes of the talent problem:

  • The refusal of most companies to make training a major strategic investment, due to the risk of losing talent via the free agent economy.
  • The tensions between building talent on the one hand, and the pressure to cut labor costs via outsourcing or automation on the other.
  • The problem of sourcing talent pools across geographies versus building a corporate culture on-site.
  • The struggle to attract talent due to culture and process changes needed to flex salaries, bonuses, and work styles (e.g. open source projects, work from home).
  • Ridiculously fussy job orders that obsess over experience in the latest versions of products so that applicants can "hit the ground running," thereby excluding huge and diverse pools of talent who could make a much bigger contribution if they were properly trained. Meantime, narrowly-skilled, demographically-correct juniors who happen to have the latest version experience get the job.
  • Too many stodgy and/or overworked HR departments in dire need of head count and ideas themselves.

Yeah, this is difficult stuff. Maybe that's why we've made so little progress? Of course, new sourcing technology will save us from ourselves. Yeah, been reading that since the mid-90s also.

Well, dear reader, there's a (fairly) new report for me to slice and dice, New HBR research uncovers best practices for surviving the IT talent crisis (free with email sign up). Surprise surprise - I don't care for the title. "Surviving" is far too low a bar, and you know how I feel about the crisis language.

The digital talent gap - by the numbers

Cue the (ahem) alarming stats:

  • "The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects a growth in new computer and information technology jobs of close to half a million from 2014 to 2024. But with an unemployment rate in tech that already hovers near zero, where will that talent come from? How many of those jobs will go unfilled?"
  • "The situation is even more dire in Europe, where the European Commission predicts
    up to 825,000 unfilled vacancies for ICT (information and communications technology) professionals by 2020."

CIOs and business leaders are in the same bind:

  • "CIOs are already feeling the pinch. Well over half (59 percent) of respondents to a global survey of 4,000 IT leaders by Harvey Nash, a global recruitment company headquartered in London, said they face a skills shortage."
  • "Business leaders are aware of the problem too. Fifty-four percent of the nearly 700 respondents to a recent Harvard Business Review Analytic Services study said they lack the people and skills they need in order to compete effectively in the connected economy."

These stats are not dissimilar to those I've seen in years past to document tech skills shortages. But this HBR report, sponsored by The Enterprisers Project, does unfurl some twists. The impact of "digital" can be overstated, but there's no denying a whole new set of tech skills to master:

Other emerging skills that are hard to find include cloud service management, mobile, and the Internet of Things. Even more traditional skills like application development, security, enterprise architecture, and integration are proving tough to fill—particularly because what’s required for those roles is changing as organizations make the shift to cloud. “We need people who can integrate services across commercial cloud platforms,” said Jay Ferro, CIO at the American Cancer Society—this is different from integrating the relatively fixed internal systems of the past. (emphasis mine).

Hiring must embrace holistic skill sets

The need for analytics skills pushes the opposite angle: skills that companies de-prioritized in the past in favor of tech product minutia are now non-negotiable:

Big data and analytics top the list of hard-to-fill positions in both the Harvey Nash study and the 2016 State of the CIO report. And those numbers have gotten a lot worse when compared with responses over the past two years. “Analytic skills are harder to find,” said Alan Cullop, CIO at DaVita, a $13.8 billion healthcare organization based in Denver. “To become good in those areas takes a blend of business talent, mathematical talent, and computer science talent. Not a lot of universities offer curricula to create that [combination of knowledge and skills].”

Yup: digital work such as data science has outpaced university curricula. Not mentioned in this report: supposedly unemployable liberal arts graduates, lacking Excel experience but loaded with creative and critical thinking skills, can are proving to be a darn good hire, especially as we clamor to derive insight from the information glut. Granted, coding skills/business process are not liberal arts strengths, but they may be easier to teach than problem-solving.

Taking advantage of diverse talent pools requires a deeper commitment to training. From a sidebar in the report called "12 tips to survive the talent crisis":

Invest in coaching, mentoring, training—one CIO said he’ll cut headcount before he cuts his training budget. Curt Carver, CIO at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, sets aside 3 percent of his budget for training, “no matter what.”

Fresh tactics for talent cultivation

When it comes to documenting new tactics for sourcing talent, this report shines:

1. CIOs and other executives becoming more active on social networks, thereby connecting with future hires. That includes event speaking opportunities. "Go to where the talent is" is the mantra here.

2. Active participation in open source projects. Even the likes of Monsanto is getting in on the action. Monsanto CIO Jim Swanson reports success in hiring via open source contributions: “A great engineer can bring 10 more with him." The report quotes Bryson Koehler, CIO of The Weather Company, now an IBM business:

The Weather Company’s Koehler agrees. “Open source is a magnet for talent,” he said. “It’s a great way to attract engineers who are creative problem solvers and can give your company an edge. Innovative developers don’t start their own projects with big, shrink-wrapped packages. They join or even start open source projects. Who wouldn’t want that kind of initiative in their company?”

3. Deeper commitment to hire - and support - diverse talent pools. But it's no use hiring diverse talent if you can't provide an appealing culture. Monsanto expanded their internal diversity networks from nine to 22. Melissa Harper, Monsanto’s vice president of global talent acquisition and chief diversity officer says these diversity networks go well beyond support groups; they are generating business insights. Harper: "our young professionals network is really helping us stay in tune with a younger segment of society that we haven’t really connected with in the past.”

4. Partnering with groups the expose companies to underrepresented talent pools. External organizations that specialize in surfacing and training talent are ready and eager to partner. In Monsanto's case, that means partnerships with land grant universities and participates in programs like the White House TechHire Initiative,and LaunchCode, which, as per its web site, "works with hundreds of companies to set up paid apprenticeships in technology for talented people who lack the traditional credentials to land a good job."

Our own Derek du Preez wrote a fine piece on a similar organization, Year Up ("Competency over Pedigree"), also cited in the report. I filed a piece on Girls Who Code, which has teamed up with numerous tech employers, and Cath Everett did a terrific piece on programs for autistic tech workers, The autistic worker – an untapped talent pool for the tech industry. The report also covers the success of such programs at SAP, Microsoft, and HPE.

5. Expanding contingent labor to include talent platforms, hackathons, and crowdsourcing. HBR research also cites numerous examples of how to source projects externally, beyond simply hiring contractors. One example from the American Cancer Society:

The American Cancer Society uses crowdsourcing for quality assurance and user experience feedback. “We have to get really creative with the competition [for talent] out there,” said Ferro. “Rather than hire C or D players, we have to be able to look at alternative ways of sourcing. We’re not just looking for FTEs. We’re looking for resources to get work done.”

Final thoughts - progress, but talent contradictions remain

The "talent crisis" premise is a old, tired saw, but the solutions presented by HBR are forward-thinking. Difficult contradictions remain: the conflict between "creating a strong culture" versus externalizing projects isn't addressed. I see it all the time, with talented friends who are forced into unwanted relocation scenarios because companies can't separate culture from water coolers.

Kudos to HBR for pushing appealing workplaces over bidding wars, but how many employees - or managers for that matter - are truly encouraged to openly participate outside company walls? (And I'm not talking about those who can't due to strict compliance laws)

There isn't an inherent conflict between outsourcing some skills and cultivating others. Too many companies cultivate mediocre administrative skills, while paying a premium for external talent on a contract basis. But the report cites a nifty example from Bryson Koehler, EVP, CTO & CIO of The Weather Company, an IBM Business, who has figured out how to stay lean AND talented:

  • Automate wherever possible
  • Use free/open source tools
  • Use SaaS where possible (Koehler would rather pay a salary to a developer/engineer than to a
    person to just manage infrastructure tooling)
  • Focus FTEs on the “new stuff” and utilize third party services to do manual testing, regression testing, and hardware certification

Now that's a smart way to think about talent versus efficiency. Give your own employees access to the cool stuff - which means, yes, upskilling them. HBR details hiring priorities by industry, an acknowledgment that Facebook and Google have a happier time recruiting digital talent than, say, a food manufacturer in Idaho.

When we cite predictions about massive skills shortages in 2020, we snub economic changes that could render such predictions irrelevant, be it Brexit, robots, or climate change. I might be living with Kevin Costner on a water craft by 2020. But give HBR Analytics Services credit for packing this report with field examples that should give companies incentive to force process change and try new tactics.

End note: for more on talent platforms, check my piece  The future of work intensifies – can a platform be ethical?

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